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The Iliad Book 3 Summary

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

In Book 3 of Homer's 'The Iliad', Menelaus and Paris attempt to end the war by engaging in a single combat for Helen, but the interference of the goddess Aphrodite makes the fight end in a controversial draw.

The Story So Far

When last we left the story at the end of Book 2 of Homer's The Iliad, the Achaean forces, which had been camped outside the walls of Troy for nine long years trying to defeat the Trojans, were preparing for a final, massive assault on the city. Though tired, the forces were inspired to try one last attack by Odysseus.

And if you need a refresher on why the Achaean forces were there to begin with, remember that the Trojan War started when Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, stole Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Menelaus thought of this as kidnapping, but Paris felt Helen was rightfully his because he had been promised 'the most beautiful woman in the world' by the goddess Aphrodite if he voted for her in a beauty contest.

All of this backstory is important in Book 3, as it focuses largely on the characters of Paris, Menelaus, and Helen, with a cameo at the end by Aphrodite.

Summary

As Book 3 opens, both the Achaeans and Trojans are moving into position for the big battle. The Achaeans are rightfully nervous about their chances, but everyone is so tired after being there for nine years that they are just excited to get it over with.

However, before the battle can begin, Paris steps forward and challenges any of the Achaean warriors to single combat, a custom in which two opposing armies each send a single man in for a one-on-one fight, and the winner of the fight wins the battle for his army. So basically, the nine-year Trojan War would come down to a single fight between Paris and one of the Achaeans.

Everyone thinks this is a good idea, especially since Paris started the trouble to begin with, but when Menelaus steps forward, Paris loses his nerve. Menelaus is not only the man whose wife Paris stole, but also the king of Sparta, the fiercest and most savage warriors in the Achaean forces. But when Paris is mocked for his cowardice by his brother Hector, leader of the Trojan army, Paris reluctantly agrees to go through with the single combat.

As Paris and Menelaus get ready for combat, the scene shifts to inside Troy, as Helen goes to the wall to watch the battle. Priam, king of Troy and father of Paris and Hector, asks Helen about the fierce Achaean warriors he sees on the battlefield, and she describes some of the key figures, including Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Ajax. Priam praises the Achaeans but leaves, unable to watch what is sure to be the death of Paris.

The single combat begins and, unsurprisingly, Menelaus puts a beating on Paris. However, Aphrodite (who has a soft spot for Paris since he declared she was the most beautiful goddess) decides to interfere and whisks Paris away just as Menelaus is about to put a spear through him. She drops him in Helen's bedroom. On the battlefield, everyone is confused as Paris seems to have just vanished, but Agamemnon argues that Menelaus should be declared the winner and Helen should be returned to the Achaeans.

Analysis

Book 3 is the first part of The Iliad in which the famous backstory of the Trojan War comes into play. It is worth remembering that The Iliad was just one of many texts, both written and oral, that told the stories of Greece's gods and heroes. So the original Greek audiences for The Iliad would have already been familiar with the story of Paris, Aphrodite, and Helen, which is commonly known as the Judgement of Paris. Therefore, we only get bits and pieces of the story here.

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